Groucho Marx once famously said, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” And in that one line, said pretty much all you need to know about the psychology of inclusion and exclusion.
|About This Sermon|
Part 1 of the series “Our Mission”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
July 12, 2020
Genesis 25:19–34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
There is something about exclusivity that we find appealing. It’s why advertisers us “limited time offers” and “limited editions” to sell us products. It’s why CVS, Safeway, and Giant call their discount coupon services “Memberships” even though the benefits are no better than those of the coupons you can clip for free in the paper. (Assuming people still get the paper, of course.) We want to be on the inside, and if it’s exclusive, then we want it even more.
There’s something about the way our brains are wired to think in terms of scarcity that feeds this. There are only so many resources, we think, and so if I can be part of an elite group with access to certain resources that’s good for me. The genius of Groucho’s observation is that through its self-deprecating humor it makes the obvious point: if a club lets me in then they’d let anyone in, so what’s the point of belonging to a club?
We like in-groups and out-groups. We like knowing that we’re on the list when we arrive at the club, not like those poor saps waiting in line, hoping to get in. We like knowing we’re on the right side of the velvet rope.
I think this is especially true when it comes to religion. Many of us take comfort in knowing that we’re on the right side of the whole who-goes-to-heaven/who-goes-to-hell divide. And we’ve definitely got our lists of who we think is in and who we think is out. (It should not surprise us, by the way, that many of the people we might have on the out list probably have us on theirs.)
It just seems that we’re almost hardwired to want to make distinctions between insiders and outsiders. And religious folks seem especially prone to this. It reminds of the old joke about the man who dies and goes to heaven. He’s being given a tour and is taken past vast rooms—one full of Jews studying Torah, another full of Muslims at prayer, another full of Buddhists meditating. Finally his guide leads him past another door and says, “Now, we’ll have to be very quiet passing this door. This room is the Christians and they think they’re the only ones here.”
II. THE TEXTS
To be fair, it’s hard not to get the impression that our faith tradition teaches us this idea of insiders and outsiders. The two scripture lessons we have for today each seem to reinforce this in their own way.
The first reading, from Genesis is the story of Jacob taking Esau’s birthright. In that passage, we read that Rachel, Isaac’s wife, is having a difficult pregnancy. She inquires of God why this is so and is told
Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.Genesis 19:23
She learns that she is to have twins and that it will be the younger child who will inherit the promises made to Abraham and Isaac before him. Indeed, when the children are born, Jacob comes out clutching at the heel of his older brother Esau, as if to try to overtake him and claim firstborn status.
One day, he takes advantage of his brother’s hunger after Esau comes in from the field and tells his brother that he’ll give his brother some of the lentil stew he’s preparing if his brother will trade him his birthright—his right to inherit as the first-born son. You know, the kind of thing a loving brother does. (It has long made me wonder, however, just how good a cook Jacob must have been.)
And there we have it—from Rebekah’s oracle of the two nations striving in the womb to Esau trading his birthright to Jacob later tricking his father Isaac into granting him his blessing over his brother Esau—some are in and some are out. Jacob is in; Esau is out.
And then we come to the Gospel lesson in which Jesus gives what is known as the Parable of the Sower.
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.Matthew 13:3–8
Jesus later explains that the seed is the word of God and the different types of terrain represent different people on whom the word falls: those who don’t understand it (the path), those who receive but cannot endure in faith (the rocky ground), those who let the cares of the world choke out faith (the thorny ground), and those who receive it and understand (the good soil). Some are in; some are out.
III. DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
So, what are we to do, to overcome our inclinations, religious, psychological, or otherwise?
Well, on some level, we know what to do. We have a mission before us: Inclusive community. Connecting in Christ. Making a Difference. It’s right there in black and white before us. Inclusive community is our task. But how?
Perhaps the first thing to understand is the difference between diversity and inclusion. A lot of churches are fairly diverse. You can go there and see people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, abilities, sexes, genders, orientations, ideologies, and so on. They all look like a college brochure full of smiling happy people from different backgrounds and walks of life. That’s diversity. And let me not be misunderstood: diversity is important. Having a community that reflects the makeup of the broader community is vital. And we should examine anything that serves as an obstacle to that kind of diversity.
I remember an instance on campus where the university planned a major event and wanted all kinds of diversity and participation. But they scheduled it on a Jewish holiday, all but ensuring that a significant portion of the population couldn’t participate. There was another time when a major dinner was scheduled during the holy month of Ramadan when our Muslim community members would be fasting.
The United Methodist Church talks a lot about wanting more young adults involved in the mission of the church, but then schedules its General Conference right when college students are in the middle of exams.
Inclusion is when all of those diverse voices are heard in decision-making and in exercises of power. And when there are no obstacles to participation and engagement.
But this goes beyond simply who is able to show up; it matters what is able to happen after you get there. A church that has disabled members of the congregation is diverse. A church with a handicap access ramp to the chancel and the pulpit; that’s inclusive.
A church that welcomes families from immigrant communities is inclusive. A church that invites members of those families to serve on the trustees is inclusive.
The question we ask is not who attends, but who is entrusted with the mission of the church?
When I first started in ministry, the community I served was very welcoming and made a point of saying so as often as possible. But the same four people were in charge of everything. And so, it didn’t matter how welcomed you were to services. In the end, if you weren’t one of those four people, you were never going to have any meaningful input into the life of the community. It may have been diverse; but it wasn’t inclusive.
C. Encountering the Other
This is harder than it sounds because in order to be truly inclusive, we have to think differently from how we are accustomed.
If we manage to get past our tendency to exclude and define boundaries, we are still often challenged with how it is we include someone.
For one of our instincts is often to assimilate them. We try to make them one of us. This might sound nice, like the idea of the melting pot, but it’s not really inclusive, because it doesn’t affirm the value of the person as they are but only as we would have them be.
Racial justice in our society will not be accomplished by turning Black people into white people with darker skin. Assimilation is not inclusive. At its heart, it remains exclusivist: there’s only one way, truly, to be an American, a Christian, a Methodist, a whatever… and I’m the right way. You’re welcome to come in, so long as you become just like me.
Welcoming people from different backgrounds as long as they think, act, and feel exactly the way you do is not inclusion. It’s barely diversity.
We sometimes make it past that to dialogue where we seek to learn from each other. These are very nice, but they often lack results. People come, they share, they learn, but often they do not change. At least not in major ways.
3. Seeing Through the Other’s Eyes
Beyond assimilation, beyond dialogue and discussion is a more powerful way: seeing ourselves through the eyes of the other. This is the hardest of them all, but also the most fruitful.
What do I as a straight, white, cisgendered, non-disabled male look like to someone LGBTQ? Black? Transgendered? Disabled? Female? This question is important because unless I can begin to understand another person’s view of me, it will be hard for me to know how to ensure that that person is truly included. Learning to see how other people view the world is one of the most important steps we can take to ensuring true inclusion.
What does an all-white church look like to a person of color? What does a suburban church look like to people who have come from overcrowded cities or from poor rural environments? What does a church that talks a lot about its parents’ and children’s ministry look like to the gay couple without kids?
I remember clergy gatherings for the Annual Conference where the clergy are invited to come forward and share “milestones” from the previous year. All of my colleagues would get up and share stories about the spouses or their children. As one who had neither spouse nor children until six months ago, I always felt excluded by that ritual. (I used to call it the “Rite of Heteronormativity” to my clergy friends.) I mean, as I said, I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, non-disabled, college-educated, native-born, Christian male. You have to work really hard to make me feel like I don’t belong somewhere. And yet the church managed it without even batting an eye.
This is why it is so vitally important to take ourselves out of our own comfort zones, our own perspectives, if we are to be truly inclusive. If I seek to understand the other, I might be better able to envision how to work toward true inclusion. I might see obstacles I’d never imagined. I might see concerns I’d never considered. I might see needs I’d never addressed. And I might go about doing so to create inclusive and meaningful community. Community worthy of our Christian calling.
IV. THE SOWER
Which brings us back to our scripture lessons. When we come back to the Gospel lesson we see something curious. You’ll note that the parable is called “the Parable of the Sower,” not the Parable of the Seed or the Parable of the Good Soil. And I’m not talking about the editors of the New Revised Standard Version who put the headings in the text. I’m talking about what Jesus calls it: “Hear then the parable of the sower…”
Because what often goes unnoticed is not the result of the sowing, but the manner of the sowing. What kind of sower goes out to sow seed and sows it on anything but the fertile soil? If you hired someone to sow seed for your farm or orchard or even just your flower garden and found them throwing seed on the sidewalk and on the rocks and in the thorns you’d call their supervisor and have them send someone else. What kind of sower seemingly wastes his time sowing seed in places where it is not expected to grow?
God is. Jesus is.
Notice that the question of who is likely to respond or what success the word of God might have with various people has nothing to do with where the seed is sown. But the scattering of the seed has everything to do with God and God’s purposes: it is expansive. It is inclusive. It goes into places we would not even bother to go. Because that is the nature of God. That is the nature of God’s love. It does not prejudge worthiness to receive. It does not show up with a list of approve sowing locations. God’s love is cast wide. Over rocky soil and good soil alike.
Whether that seed bears fruit is on us; on how we will respond to the invitation. But we have already seen the method of the sower, and are called to follow.
Ultimately, that is the task of the church—to be the body of Christ on earth. To be the people of God.
And the God that we have come to know in Jesus is expansive. Jesus’ own life is full of examples of welcoming and including those who were on most people’s “out” list. Early Christianity embodied this by being a religion that welcomed and included women, slaves, and others marginalized in society. It was one of the most powerful witnesses in the ancient world, and radical hospitality and inclusion remain one of the most powerful witnesses today.
If we would be the people of God, if we would be the Body of Christ, if we would follow in the witness of the ancient Church, if we would follow in the footsteps of the sower, then we cannot do other than build a community that is not just diverse, but inclusive. A community where people of all races, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, ages, sexes, gender identities, orientations, and languages are not just welcomed, but included. That is our mission.
In the end we are all here by God’s grace, not through our own merit. We are all the result of God having sown some seeds in our direction and them having taken root. This is not our doing; it is God’s doing. We are all lucky to be members of a club that would have someone like us as a member.
That is a blessing of grace; it is not a gift to be hoarded. And so we are called to model that expansive love and grace. We’re called to share that love and grace with everyone. We are called to build communities that reflect this all-inclusive love of Jesus. We are called to be like the sower who sees all the ground as worthy for sowing, and who shares freely, generously, and openly with all.
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”